Rabbi Neal Borovitz thinks everyone should have a living will. In addition, people need health-care proxies preferably, family members or friends to ensure that the provisions of those documents are enforced. But sometimes, he acknowledged, no one is available to serve in that capacity. In that case, people may turn to their rabbis.
Four people have turned to him in recent years, and he now holds the medical power of attorney for several elderly congregants who either have no children or whose children live too far away to help in an emergency. (He does not know if other local rabbis have taken on the same responsibility.)
"I am honored by their trust," said Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Sholom in River Edge. He pointed out that while each situation involves unique circumstances, none of the congregants has a family member close enough to take on the role of proxy. In addition, he said that his job as rabbi, and therefore as teacher and pastor, is effectively composed of "ways to help people." In these cases, he will help by ensuring that the congregants’ living wills are honored.
"We all have a responsibility to help one another," he said, noting that with the graying of the Jewish world, "this will become more and more central to our community." But, he added, the need to plan ahead, to know what you want, applies to people of all ages.
The rabbi said that every few years, as part of the shul’s ongoing adult education program, he organizes a seminar focusing on end-of-life issues and brings in doctors and lawyers to address the congregation.
One of the purposes of these sessions is "to let people know that they need to [appoint] someone." Said Borovitz, "You have to ask yourselves, ‘Who do you trust, and who will take on that trust?’" The rabbi also encourages people to make arrangements for their own funerals, and congregants can do that through a "pre-need benevolent association."
Teaneck attorney Martin Shenkman agrees that everyone should have a living will and told The Jewish Standard that the process is fairly simple. The author, with his anesthesiologist wife, Dr. Patti S. Klein, of "Living Wills & Health Care Proxies" (Law Made Easy Press, ‘004) Shenkman said that people need only meet with their lawyers, specify what they want, and appoint a health-care proxy.
"This will ensure that their dignity and wishes are taken into account" when decisions are made regarding their health care, and, when necessary, their funerals, he said.
Both Shenkman and Borovitz have seen incidents where a living will or pre-arranged funeral instructions would have prevented a good deal of heartache and conflict. Not having a living will can lead to family fights, said Borovitz, adding that he hopes that after the case involving Florida woman Terri Schiavo, "more people are talking to each other" about end-of-life issues. "You don’t want to destroy the families left behind," he said.
Shenkman said he has seen other scenarios such as cases where people in the religious community received burials that did not accord with their religious beliefs that could have been prevented had these people left instructions regarding their wishes and appointed someone to follow through.
One option, said Shenkman especially feasible for those who are financially comfortable is to establish a living trust, with an institutional trustee, such as a bank, responsible for ensuring its provisions.
"This is the most powerful way to protect your interests," he said, pointing out that a revocable living trust can even see to such requirements as the need for kosher food in a nursing home."